Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam a threat to downstream Nile states, including Egypt

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The government of Ethiopia is currently constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Once complete, the dam will be the largest hydropower facility in Africa (about 6,000 MW) – nearly triple the country’s current electricity generation capacity – and represent a potential economic windfall for the government. By Zachary Donnenfeld for ISS TODAY.

The benefits for Ethiopia and for many electricity-importing countries in East Africa from the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam are clear. However, the implications for downstream countries aren’t all positive – and need to be better understood.

In 2016, about 30% of Ethiopia’s population had access to electricity and more than 90% of households continued to rely on traditional fuels for cooking. Traditional fuels can cause respiratory infections, and according to the World Health Organisation, acute lower respiratory infection is the leading cause of death in Ethiopia.

So the benefits of better access to electricity in Ethiopia are clear. But creating a larger supply doesn’t mean demand will automatically follow. In Ethiopia, where 70% of the population lives in rural areas and relies on subsistence agriculture, the government must also invest in developing human capital to increase incomes and stimulate the demand for services. The standard of living needs to improve before Ethiopians can consume additional electricity – unless it’s completely subsidised by the government.

The government may also anticipate a boost to revenues through electricity exports from the dam. Several power purchase agreements have already been signed with neighbouring countries, including Djibouti, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and Tanzania.

There is a need for more rapid progress along various dimensions of human development in Ethiopia, as highlighted in a recent ISS report produced for the United States Agency for International Development. But there are concerns about how this dam will affect downstream states, particularly Sudan and Egypt.

Although Sudan was initially opposed to the dam’s construction, the country has recently warmed to the idea. This could be because Sudan has agreed to purchase electricity from the dam, while the two countries have also agreed to collaborate on a free economic zone. While bilateralism has proved effective with Sudan, multilateral negotiations haven’t been particularly fruitful.

Signed in 2015, the Khartoum Agreement ostensibly mapped out a way forward, but implementation of the deal hasn’t been easy, and cracks are starting to show. In May this year, the Middle East Monitor concluded that Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan had just finished their 14th round of unsuccessful discussions about how to manage the Nile River.

At that 2015 meeting, officials from the three countries agreed to proceed with an impact assessment that was to be completed within 15 months. After 17 months, the report has yet to be publicly released. There is still no independent feasibility study, cost-benefit analysis or environmental impact assessment.

This is worrying since Ethiopia could begin filling the dam at any time. The Ethiopian government expects it will take roughly five or six years to fill the dam’s reservoir. However, Diaa Al-Din Al-Qousi from Egypt’s Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation believes that a period of 12 to 18 years is needed to guarantee water security for Egypt. This is quite a discrepancy.

A recent report from the Geological Society of America said a period of between five and 15 years seemed reasonable, apparently giving credibility to both sides. But the same report noted that the “Nile’s fresh water flow to Egypt may be cut by as much as 25%, with a loss of a third of the electricity generated by the Aswan High Dam”, which would be bad news for Egyptians.

Also, many Egyptian officials fear that the increased evaporation from the sheer size of the dam could affect water security in the country – already one of the most water-stressed in the world.

Ethiopia maintains that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project has been conducted with adequate transparency and involvement from the relevant stakeholders. It also highlights that Egypt hasn’t signed the Co-operative Framework Agreement (CFA) of the Nile Basin States, whereas Ethiopia has.

Since Ethiopia announced it would go ahead with construction of the dam in 2011, Cairo has voiced disapproval. At various stages, Egypt has demanded that Ethiopia cease construction, threatened action at the United Nations Security Council, and claimed that it is protected by a 1959 treaty, even though Ethiopia didn’t sign the treaty. The treaty essentially divides the river between Sudan and Egypt, leaving nothing for Ethiopia, where more than 60% of the Nile’s water originates.

With its national livelihood depending on the Nile, it’s difficult to anticipate what Egypt’s reaction might be should Ethiopia proceed with its plan to fill the dam. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty recently told Reuters that Egypt had “no other resources … we will not allow our national interests, our national security to be endangered”. This brings back memories of former president Mohamed Morsi’s ominous 2013 speech, in which he declared that if the Nile “loses one drop, our blood is the alternative”.

Analysts at the Texas-based consulting group Stratfor have concluded that Egypt’s reaction will, in part, be determined by its political leadership. But they also stress that “whatever its political inclination, a large-scale reduction in water from the Nile would be intolerable to any Egyptian government”.

Ethiopia has a right to exploit its own natural resources to support much-needed human development projects, but can it afford to compromise its relationship with downstream states, particularly Egypt? The government of Ethiopia has done well to finance and promote this project. The question now is how best to manage the possible implications with downstream states. DM 3

Zachary Donnenfeld is a researcher, African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria.

Photo: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) (Photo credit: Hellen Natu)


  1. Close and reliable sources indicate that the construction of the Dam has stalled due to lack of money. The main motive behind this mega project was politics. The late TPLF ethic leader made the idea official to alley the fear of the Arab Spring and garner both financial and political support. But the awareness Ethiopians who know the nature and machinations of the TPLF,conducted campaigns of public awarenes. And the TPLF could not attain neither its political or economic goals.

  2. me als an ethiopian i donot care about the dam because, the dams construction is poletically motivated by tegre weyanes. they think if possible they can govern ethiopia by force and loot the money produced by the dam to tegray and deposite it foreign countries. if they canot govern ethiopia ,they will try BENISHANGOL region to be part of tegray and take the dam to tegray like they did it in welkayet because of these reasons i say NILE is mine but NOT the dam which is built by weyane.even if weyanes build the dam for ethiopia i fight for my human right i donot mind about the dam .als far as in ethiopia exist under weyane tegreys supermecy.

    i donot mind about the dam .FIRST HUMAN RIGHT.

  3. No doubt that the work shall be completed by the owners of the dam and the Nile river that contribute 85% of the water. Ethiopians need to come out of darkness.Better that Egypt fully start supporting Ethiopia planting trees and other relevant environmental and climate change.. activities so that there will be more rain and the water continues flowing. When Ethiopia keeps on making itself green, Nile becomes more prosperous. The people in Egypt will get enough water without any worries. Help Tana to remain dependable lake for Ethiopians, and Egyptians and other people who are also beneficial.Cooperation between people is the key for better future.Help the people of Ethiopia to become owners of their peace and democracy.

  4. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is totally illegal and must be demolished ASAP. No environmental study was ever performed like many other DAMS built in Ethiopia like the one in the OMO region which destroyed the life of OMO valley people and will soon dry up Turkana LAKE in Kenya. TPLF/EPRDF never study the long term consequences of their actions. They are very greedy and always go for short term gain and always MISS THE FOREST FOR THE TREE. The environmental damage/consequence to cites and towns in Ethiopia close to the DAM and downstream countries such as Sudan and Egypt was never studied. The professors of zero sum gain (TYRANNICAL TPLF/EPRDF), I get 100% you get zero, started to secretly build the dam when middle east was in turmoil during ARAB spring in 2010. The DAM was over 50% built before Ethiopia decided, because the were pressured from all corners, to discuss about the consequences of the DAM with egypt and sudan. TALK ABOUT ASS BACKWARD AND A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF PUTTING THE CART BEFORE THE HORSE. When this dam is fully built it will cause mass starvation and humanitarian catastrophe of huge magnitude in Egypt and possibly sudan. Since the DAM is an existential threat to Egyptian and possibly to sudanese people, it is the right of both countries leaders to destroy the DAM BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.
    Moreover, tyrannical TPLF/EPRDF, has said multiple times that the main reason for building the dam is to generate foreign currency for you guessed it TPLF/EPRDF. Not even once did they say we are building the dam to electrify ethiopia and to improve the living standard of ethiopians. Tyrannical TPLF/EPRDF will use the money generated by selling power to neighboring countries to build more jails and buy more weapons to jail and kill ethiopians. They will use the money to stop freedom of speech, press, democracy and private enterprise. ALL ETHIOPIAN OPPOSITION FORCES SHOULD BE ON THE SIDE EGYPT AND PLAN TO CHASE AND DESTROY, WITH EGYPT IF NECESSARY, THE TYRANNICAL TPLF/EPRDF. THE ENEMY OF MY ENEMY IS MY FRIEND. YES INDEED.

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